Cultural differences in language

Breaking Blue

Translation has always been important for trade. Merchants throughout history either knew more than one language or hired someone who did. From trade between close neighbours England and France, or those who travelled along the Silk Road from China to North Africa. Wherever they ended up, there were language barriers that they had to overcome.

As we’re all aware, selling in a foreign market means that you must understand the market conditions within that country, as they may differ a lot from the way in which things generally operate in your home market. The differences in language or cultural values when selling products abroad can often still come as a shock to businesses when first entering these markets.

There are many examples (some with rude or funny implications) that were likely instrumental to the failing of the product. Either way, it highlights the importance of being sensitive to cultural nuances, which goes beyond simple translation. Understanding different cultures without assuming that all behaviours and responses are universal is essential to ensuring that you are communicating using the right messages.

Examples of this can be seen in Michael White’s ‘A Short Course in International Marketing Blunders: Mistakes Made by Companies that Should Have Known Better’[1]. Iranian company Paxam produced a soap which was called ‘snow’ in Farsi. Unfortunately, the word when translated into English was ‘barf’. You can pretty much guess the reaction of customers when coming into contact with a cleansing product named after vomit!

Additionally, Parker Pens ran an ad which should have meant ‘won’t leak and embarrass you’, which when mistranslated in Spanish informed people that ‘it wouldn’t get them pregnant’. When their sales were poor in the Latin American markets (despite the high ad expenditure), they decided to find out why, only to discover that they were in effect, offering their product as a contraceptive.

The linguistic relativity hypothesis[2] (or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), suggests that language can affect how we think. For example, research by Winawer and colleagues[3] found that Russian speakers were faster than English speakers at discriminating between shades of blue. This is likely facilitated by the Russian language having no singular word for ‘blue’ but instead having two distinct words for the different shades of blue (goluboy = light blue, and siniy = dark blue). Therefore it is important that we don’t assume that words such as ‘blue’ mean the same thing to us as in Russia. Something to think about for our company name, in fact!

Another example relates to perception of the colour green. In most of the Western world a green hat is something uneventful. Even if a man was to wear a green hat in most parts of Asia it wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. However, if a man wears a green hat in China, it would signify that their partner had been unfaithful[4]. Any clothing company that may have had success in selling other garments in that colour, would probably not see the same results for headwear.

Sometimes the issues isn’t just the translation of the word, but finding the appropriate word or phrase for the local market. We have to be more aware of the differences between places that speak the same language, e.g. in American and British English there are words which may have been changed meaning:

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The same also applies to Spanish in Spain and Latin America, Brazilian Portuguese and Angolan Portuguese and many others.

There are many ways to consider how best to translate research in the most representative way. A paper by the universities of Manchester and Salford[5] suggests considering the issues surrounding the translations process, especially the stage at which the interviews were translated and transcribed.

It is important to remember the process is just as important as the results, which is why we continue to look at ways to improve how we collect the data.  Reviewing how we translate what we say should not be underestimated.


Written by Joab Williams


[1] A Short Course in International Marketing Blunders: Mistakes Made by Companies that Should Have Known Better’




[5] Qualitative research and translation dilemmas, Bogusia Temple and Alys Young, University of Salford and the University of Manchester